Students

A White Supremacist Incites a Crowd at Texas A&M

December 07, 2016

Julia Robinson for The Chronicle
Richard Spencer talks to reporters before addressing a crowd of supporters and protesters in the student center at the Texas A&M flagship campus. While he exhorted white people in his audience to "find that shadow self, that European, that hero within you,” hundreds of protesters gathered outside and at a unity event across the street to oppose his racist rhetoric.
Alternately goading and mocking the crowd, Richard B. Spencer delivered his white-supremacist message Tuesday evening to a packed room of about 400 people at the Texas A&M University Memorial Student Center.

Forty minutes into his two-hour appearance, a few people surged toward the stage, pushing and shoving, before police officers restored order. The chaos seemed to energize Mr. Spencer, who sprinkled racist, sexist comments with fat jokes aimed at protesters who challenged him.

About a half-dozen supporters, none of whom identified themselves as being connected with Texas A&M, roared their approval when he urged white people to reclaim their identities.

"Have a goddamn identity. Have a sense of yourselves," he shouted. "Find that shadow self, that European, that hero within you. Be that person!"

Wearing crisp blue jeans, a white button-down shirt with rolled cuffs and a tan vest, the man who coined the term "alt-right" seemed to revel in the attention he was getting while, across the street, in the university’s football stadium, hundreds of Aggies were gathered in a show of unity.

The university’s president, Michael K. Young, said last week that while he found Mr. Spencer’s views "abhorrent," and that no one from the university had invited him, A&M had to allow him to speak because of the university’s commitment to free speech.

Mr. Spencer was invited to speak at A&M by Preston Wiginton, a white supremacist who briefly attended the university a decade ago.

Mr. Young said he decided to organize an alternative, competing event at Kyle Field, billed as "Aggies United," to show the university’s opposition to such divisive rhetoric, which he said has "no place in civilized dialogue and conversation."

Mr. Spencer’s speech "doesn’t deserve a debate or protest," Mr. Young said in an interview before the event. "It’s beneath contempt."

He said he has been "heartened by the outpouring of concern and anger by those who say it doesn’t reflect who we are." The message the president hopes to convey is that "whatever your background, there’s a whole Aggie nation supporting you."

The event in Kyle Field featured an ethnically diverse assortment of actors, musicians, authors, and speakers from the national stage, as well as the student, faculty, and administrative ranks. It was co-hosted by Hill Harper, an award-winning actor and author, and the university’s student body president, Hannah Wimberly. Also appearing was a Holocaust survivor, Max Glauben, who came to the United States as an orphan in 1947.

Meanwhile, in the student center across the street, Mr. Spencer mocked the president for trying to create "the world’s largest safe space" — a sign, he said, that shows how powerful his movement is.

"The fact that Dr. Young was trying to stifle speech with this failed rally does not speak well for academe," he said. "He is doing that to try to drown me out, to prevent students from engaging with me. All I can say to Dr. Young is it didn’t work. We won."

Julia Robinson for The Chronicle
Several hundred protesters demonstrated against Mr. Spencer outside the Texas A&M student center where he spoke.
Inside Kyle Field, a jazz band and a men’s choir performed for the crowd that grew restless waiting for the headliners to perform. Across the street, a crowd of protesters who had started the evening silently holding signs swelled into the hundreds, with many shouting slogans like "The people united will not be divided!"

Raygan Batiste, a black freshman who waited in line for more than an hour to hear Mr. Spencer, said she felt it was more important to hear what he had to say.

"I feel like the Aggies United event and all the performers are just an attempt to distract from what’s going on," she said. "I want to try to understand where he’s coming from."

Many minority students apparently shared her feelings. The crowd that packed the conference room was much more ethnically diverse than the campus as a whole, where black students make up less than 4 percent of the enrollment and Hispanic students less than 20 percent. The figures are far below both groups’ representation in the state population, which is about 12 percent for blacks and 39 percent for Hispanics.

Ahead of her in line, William Fears, a 29-year-old from Houston who described himself as "mainly an Internet troll," said he was there to support Mr. Spencer. For about an hour, Mr. Fears, who wore a black suit, black shirt and black tie, debated protesters who surrounded him to challenge his assertions that, as a white man, he was being threatened by the nation’s growing diversity.

"What you’re doing takes guts, man," a passerby, who said he wasn’t a student, said to Mr. Fears.

High Security

Security was intense for the event, the first major protest at A&M since a law went into effect allowing students to carry guns into most campus buildings.

Texas A&M has, in recent years, been working hard to improve its campus climate and its reputation with prospective minority students. It has expanded cultural-diversity curricular requirements, improved diversity training for student leaders, and upgraded its online system for reporting incidents of hate or bias.

Those efforts were set back in February when a few of its students made racially-offensive remarks to a group of visiting high-school students. Mr. Young personally traveled to the charter school in Dallas to apologize. Having a "white nationalist" land on his campus was the last thing he needed.

In an interview with The Chronicle last week, Mr. Spencer said he has been working to get invitations to speak at "all of the major" colleges.

He generated national attention in the days following the election of Donald J. Trump as president when he ended a speech in Washington with "Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!" Several of his supporters responded with a Nazi-style salutes.

Mr. Spencer joked about that controversy and said the salute was all in fun.

"We don’t allow other people to tell us what we can joke about. We don’t play by their rules," he said. "We have fun. We can be outlandish and that isn’t going to stop."

Most of the counterprotesters who showed up to support Mr. Spencer had no affiliation with the university. In recent days, an anonymous reader told the campus newspaper, The Battalion, that a group was forming that calls itself the European Aggies Alliance. Mr. Spencer has called on college students to create such groups.

The university’s president, Mr. Young, said there is no evidence that it is a registered or authorized student group. He said he would be disappointed if Mr. Spencer’s message resonated with any students.

At the end of his talk, Mr. Spencer urged students to ask him questions, which they did with escalating degrees of anger. Downstairs, police officers in riot gear pushed back protesters who were trying to enter the building.

When one student demanded that he answer whether or not he was a racist, Mr. Spencer dismissed the question.

"The word ‘racist’ is a fake word," he said. "It’s a way of trying to shut down speech."

The audience sat quietly during the first part of his speech, but started to talk back as it went on. A typical exchange went like this:

Mr. Spencer: "You’re part of a race, whether you like it or not."

Audience member: "It’s called the human race!"

Mr. Spencer "Wow, that’s original."

A protester wearing a clown suit crossed in front of his podium with a sign that says "he’s the bozo."

Mr. Spencer: "She’s dancing. Perhaps she’ll lose some weight."

Another student asked how he could claim that the United States started as an all-white country when Europeans had exterminated Native Americans who were already here.

"It was terrible, bloody and violent, but we conquered this continent," he answered. "We won and we got to define what America means and what this continent means. America, at the end of the day, belongs to white men."

The crowd erupted in hoots and laughter. But as the evening wore on, the laughter turned to anger, which came close, at times, to erupting into fights.

After two hours, Mr. Spencer smiled, told the audience he loved them and exited, message delivered.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.